You’ve recently purchased a new television. All the wires are connected just right; you sit back in your favorite easy chair, remote control at the ready, and start pushing buttons.
Some buttons accomplish what you like, while others appear to do nothing. One or two work like magic, tuning in your favorite program instantly. You find yourself pushing these special buttons over and over again, until the little painted-on numbers begin to fade.
Children learn from you the same way. A young child’s growing vocabulary is like that new remote, and you’re the machine she’s trying to control. Some words elicit no response. Others are sometimes pretty successful, but a chosen few routinely elicit a big response. It hardly matters if the child actually understands what she’s saying. The point is that she’s found the right buttons to push.
Why do they do it?
The key is the emotion in your response. Try this experiment with a toddler: If you “oooh!” and “ahhh!” or scream and yell every time she says “Ish-ka-bibble” (or any other nonsense phrase), you’ll discover that she says “Ish-ka-bibble” more and more often.
Perhaps more important is to understand that the same experiment works the other way, as well. If you stop responding to an undesirable word or action with strong emotion, it will gradually go away.
“I hate you” is one common example. Your child is likely to experiment with this phrase without any real understanding of its adult meaning. If you respond with strong emotion, she’ll discover that this is one of those magic buttons to push and you’ll hear it more and more often. Associated emotions will escalate with each utterance. If, instead, you respond calmly and clearly, you have a better chance of shaping your child’s choices and getting at what she really means to say.
For the vast majority of children, “I hate you” really means “I’m mad at you.” It does not convey the withdrawal of love an adult might intend with the same words. If you respond to, “I hate you” with angry prohibitions (“You will not say those words to me!”), the phrase takes on magical powers. If you respond, instead, by helping to shape what you believe your child genuinely intends (“I understand that you’re really mad at me”), you are both teaching her how to express herself clearly and subtly conveying that “I hate you” is not a button worth pushing.
A variety of profanities are buttons most kids push at one time or another. Like unmarked keys on a remote control, most young children experiment by pushing these buttons periodically just to see what happens with no real idea what they mean. Schoolmates’ giggles and other parents’ protests often suggest that a word or phrase has special power, but it’s your response as parent or primary caregiver that determines whether a given button gets pushed again and again.
So what do you do when your daughter spices up her play with vulgar language? When you overhear your son using the “F” word? No one can dictate your morals. You must decide what language is acceptable in your home, and then follow through consistently. Whatever words or phrases that you determine are unacceptable must not elicit your emotional response.
The Curse of the Breakfast Cereal
At breakfast one morning, your 5-year-old responds to your offer of cereal with, “I don’t want any of that damn stuff.” It’s not said in anger, but offered as if “damn” were interchangeable with any other adjective, like “blue” or “crunchy” or “sweet.”
Bite your tongue. Take a moment to think this through:
• Is “damn” an acceptable word in your home? If yes, be prepared that such language will raise eyebrows (if not worse) outside of your home. You may, of course try to teach your kids that some language is acceptable only at home, but it’s a hard lesson to learn.
• Beware that double standards rarely succeed: If it’s OK for you to use a word, you have to expect that your kids are going to try to do the same.
• If the word is not acceptable, don’t assume that she knows what she’s saying. If your child is randomly pushing buttons, trying to discover which ones elicit a reaction, better to start with simple, unemotional information. “That’s a hurting word, Sara. Can you refer to the cereal another way?” may be sufficient.
• Remember that we often learn the emotional impact of a word before we understand its real dictionary meaning. Even toddlers who have experienced a word like “damn” in the context of anger can understand that the word expresses anger. When this is the case, better to respond to the emotion than the word itself: “I guess you’re pretty mad, Sara.”
• Take care not to make the word functional. If “pass the damn cereal” succeeds in getting the cereal, you may be teaching that the word works, that it accomplishes its goal. There are times when its best to offer a simple, “I’ll be glad to pass the cereal when you can ask for it politely.” But take care not to make this into a power struggle. Eye contact, for instance, can invite defiance here. Look away and keep your tone even and clear. She might decide to get the cereal for herself, to go without cereal, or she might see the word doesn’t upset you and doesn’t get her what she wants, so better to try another way.
• Do you want to forbid the word entirely? Forbidden things often take on a special appeal. Your simple and unexplained declaration that, “that word is unacceptable in this home!” teaches nothing and leaves the child wondering — an invitation to experiment with it further, with you or elsewhere.
• Do you want to force an apology? Lots of caregivers insist that a child parrot words like, “I’m sorry I said a swear” before life can move forward. Be aware that if you make this choice, you are inviting a power struggle. Some kids will fold their tiny arms over their T-shirts and refuse to say the words. Then what? But even those who do repeat the prescribed apology are doing so by rote. There’s no meaning in the words and later, genuine apologies may sound just as empty. If you think an apology is called for, you might prompt, “That language hurts my feelings. Is that something you want to apologize for?”
• On occasion, a child’s use of a forbidden word or phrase is a sign of some kind of distress or trauma. A child who persists in using such language, who uses words she would have no other reason to understand as if they are genuinely understood, or a child who obviously associates strong emotion with such words, may have learned them in the context of an upsetting event. In these rare instances, its more important to understand where the language is coming from than to focus on the words themselves. In the extreme, a mental health professional might be useful in delving into the real meanings being expressed.
• Last but never least: Don’t lose your sense of humor. A child in search of a button to push may need something to experiment with. Try gently teasing about a nonsense word: “Whatever you do, don’t say ‘ish-ka-bibble!'” Then, when the forbidden silly word is said, cover your ears and run away shrieking. You’ll give your kids the opportunity to play with language without becoming unacceptable or offensive.
Benjamin D. Garber, Ph.D. is a child psychologist and freelance writer.